Are Gender Diversity Programs Hitting a Brick Wall?

    Deeply ingrained biases seem to keep women out of the C-suite

By Dana Wilkie Jul 30, 2015
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Shortly after news broke that Google ads for CEO positions targeted mostly men, a leading academic journal reported that some men are so threatened by female executives that they compensate by being aggressive toward female superiors.

In an era when women are told gender equality will follow if they “lean in,” news and studies like these prompt questions on whether bias against women in the C-suite is so deeply ingrained - so much a part of our culture - that even the most proactive workplace diversity programs are fighting a losing battle.

“Bias is formed in our unconscious mind without our knowing,” said Sara Taylor, founder of deepSEE Consulting, which provides organizations with diversity training. “We make decisions and believe them to be true because we trust what our brains tell us. What we can do in our organizations is teach people how to recognize their bias, question it, test it and bring the unconscious to the conscious level. You need leadership to not only support and drive that work, but also to reduce their own personal bias.”

Google Bias

The Washington Post reported in July 2015 that a team of researchers from Carnegie Mellon University built a tool called Ad Fisher that tracked how user behavior on Google influenced the personalized Google ads that each user saw. The researchers used fake accounts representing theoretical job seekers who searched for employment strictly online. Some accounts listed their sex as male and some as female.

The Ad Fisher team found that when Google believed the accounts belonged to male job seekers, those accounts were far more likely to be shown ads for high-paying executive positions. Google showed these high-paying ads 1,852 times to the male group—but just 318 times to the female group.

Moreover, a simple search under “Google Images” using the keyword “CEO” shows dozens of pictures of men before finally showing a female. And the female shown is not a human woman, but instead is a Barbie doll that illustrates a decade-old story from news satire website The Onion titled “CEO Barbie Criticized For Promoting Unrealistic Career Images."

“Unfortunately, Google's algorithms are indicative of much larger issues,” said Matt Brosseau, chief technology officer and head recruiter at Instant Alliance, an HR staffing and consulting firm. “The system tracks behavior and patterns across all its users, and the fact that an image search for CEO shows predominately men is a problem with our perception of a leader, not a problem with the algorithm that shows it to us.

“A company like Google has managed to break ground in many ways, including gender issues, but until our society changes, results like this will continue to be the norm.”

Taylor has done a lot of work around unconscious bias, which she calls the next frontier in HR’s approach to diversity at work.

“The people at Google are like the rest of us … they have a human brain” Taylor said. “That brain relies on past experiences to make sense of current reality. Think of it as our brain creating files about every subject we encounter and storing those files in a deep locker that we don’t have access to. A subject like ‘CEOs’ comes up and the unconscious brain accesses the file. If the folks at Google are like most of us, their past experiences with CEOs have been that CEOs are male. When they create algorithms related to a CEO, they don’t realize that it’s actually their unconscious brain that’s already decided what gender a CEO is.”

Study Shows Ingrained Bias

On July 10, 2015, a study appeared in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin titled On July 10, 2015, a study appeared in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin titled “A Man’s (Precarious) Place: Men’s Experienced Threat and Self-Assertive Reactions to Female Superiors.” Researchers from Bocconi University in Milan, Italy, and from Northwestern and Washington State universities in the U.S., investigated men’s reactions to women in superior roles.

They hypothesized that when a woman has a superior role in an organization, men in subordinate positions feel threatened, which leads them to behave more assertively toward her and advocate for themselves. In two studies, the researchers demonstrated that men feel more threatened by women in superior roles than they do by men in superior roles and, as a result, engage in more assertive behaviors toward these women. In a third study, they demonstrated that a woman in a superior role who displays qualities associated with “administrative agency”—that is, she tends to be direct and proactive— elicits less assertive behavior from men than a woman who displays qualities of “ambitious agency”—characterized by self-promotional and power-seeking behavior.

In short, the bias against a female boss is so deeply ingrained in some men that they find such leadership threatening and start to advocate for their own self-interest more aggressively than when they have male superiors.

Todd Thibodeaux, president and CEO of CompTIA, a nonprofit trade association for the information technology industry, said that the only thing that will break down barriers to gender diversity in the executive suite is a strong commitment by boards of directors to do just that.

“They have the opportunity to force companies out of their cultural shells and provide a framework for gender diversity—and cultural diversity, for that matter—in the C-suite,” he said, pointing out that minority players became more prevalent as leaders on professional football teams only after the NFL’s governing board required teams to start interviewing at least one minority candidate for these positions.

Getting Around C-Suite Bias

It can be tricky for an HR manager who answers to senior leaders to turn around and instruct those same executives on why they should consider more women for top positions—especially if the HR manager is a woman and most of those in the C-suite are men.

Taylor said it’s possible to have this discussion in a nonthreatening way if HR practitioners shift the focus from bias and instead focus on effectiveness.

“It’s much easier for [leaders] to engage in a conversation that’s about how they and the organization can be more effective and successful,” she said, adding that when it comes to diversity, HR professionals need to make executives understand that the organization won’t become more effective at diversity if they don’t first take a hard look at themselves.

“We tell them that we’ve never seen an organization that is at a higher stage of development than its leaders. That means that until they develop themselves, the organization can’t move forward. That not only makes sense to them, but it’s also quite a motivator. I have seen leader after leader have that ‘aha’ moment.”

This week, Facebook released a series of anti-bias training videos, writing in a release that it hopes “to achieve broader recognition of the hidden biases we all hold, and to highlight ways to counteract bias in the workplace.”

“We believe that understanding and managing unconscious bias can help us build stronger, more diverse and inclusive organizations,” the release said.

Anthony G. Greenwald, a University of Washington psychology professor and creator of the Implicit Association Test (IAT)—a well-respected tool designed to uncover hidden biases about everything from race to gender to age—said he questions just how aggressively HR departments train senior leaders on gender diversity.

“I’m curious to know more about this training,” he said. “Are any of the methods being used ones that have been established as effective via any scientific study? Is some assumption made that training intended to combat gender bias is effective, even without empirical study? Maybe the thing to [ask] is the way in which these training programs are used and evaluated—if at all.”

Thibodeaux said one approach is to present to boards and executives the statistical case for putting more women in the C-suite. He noted that a January 2015 study by the management consultancy McKinsey & Co. found that companies in the top quartile for gender diversity are 15 percent more likely to have financial returns above their respective national industry medians.

“If, as the McKinsey data suggests, companies that commit themselves to diverse leadership are more successful, positive financial results may be the strongest argument yet for boards of directors to welcome more women into corporate boardrooms and executive suites,” he said.

Dana Wilkie is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

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